Making voting count

Making voting count

In recent years, the people have been called to the polls with increasing frequency, both to vote in elections and in constitutional referendums. For the health of democracy and the encouragement of civic duty, people should only be called to the polls when really necessary.

The biggest argument against the referendum to take the reference to blasphemy out of Article 40.6.1 of the Constitution is that it is unnecessary and not a pressing priority. Whether it is in or out will probably make little difference to the real world.

Respect for religion, whether one agrees with it or not, is an important value for the peace, happiness and good order of society. Unfortunately, an ill-defined law against blasphemy does not prevent sporadic vandalism of church property, nor intolerance in some quarters of any public manifestation of religious values that might impinge on secular life.

The British Supreme Court decision in the Ashers Bakery case in Northern Ireland puts limits on attempts to override and make illegal the expression of religious conscience in that instance, where the right to refuse to bake a cake carrying a strong campaign message was upheld. The proposed conscience clause in the abortion legislation needs to be revisited.

One has to be conscious, however, of a wider context. In some societies, blasphemy is punishable, sometimes by death. Equally, behaving recklessly and irresponsibly in a way that is deemed to be grossly insulting to religion in other societies can lead to violent protest that claims lives and destroys property.

That undoubtedly lay behind the insertion in the Defamation Act (2009) of a clause defining blasphemy, as intentionally publishing or saying something “grossly abusive or insulting in matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion”.

Fortunately in Ireland so far, there is little disposition to engage in high profile provocative activity of that kind, and, though I was one of the TDs voting for it, it was strange to frame blasphemy laws mainly to protect religions beyond our shores, and that may have only recently become indigenous to Ireland.


In both Ireland and Britain there are minority governments, dependent on confidence and supply agreements with an opposition party, in Ireland’s case the main opposition party Fianna Fáil, in Britain’s case a small opposition party though large in Northern Ireland, the DUP.

With three budgets passed, the confidence and supply agreement in Dublin has effectively expired, and needs to be renegotiated and extended, if a general election is to be avoided. In Britain, confidence and supply is threatened by disagreements over the Irish backstop in relation to Brexit, which might lead to the DUP withdrawing their support.

In the Republic, there is no obvious need or public desire for an election or any confidence that it would result in a clearer mandate for whichever is the lead party.

As with the Tallaght strategy of 1987-9, when Fine Gael in Opposition under Alan Dukes supported a Fianna Fáil minority Government, the political understanding between the two main centre parties has been accompanied by rapid economic recovery, which creates the wherewithal to tackle major problems, such as housing and health.

It is also argued that with Brexit negotiations reaching their climax, with the Irish border centre-stage, this is not a good time for a general election and a possibly prolonged interregnum as parties and others try and form a government.

A UK general election could prolong political and economic uncertainty without necessarily providing a solution to Brexit problems. If precipitated by those problems, it could be very heated and divisive. During the Brexit referendum, a recently elected and strongly pro-remain Labour MP, Jo Cox, was murdered in the last days of the campaign.

From an Irish point of view, a British rethink on a second referendum about whether to leave the EU at all would be wonderful, but the prospects for it, despite a massive demonstration in London last weekend, still look slim.

This week sees a Presidential election, mainly brought about by media pressure rather than public demand. Three of the mainstream parties, representing about 63% of the electorate in the 2016 election, support the incumbent President, and clearly saw no necessity for an election. The result will show whether or not that view is vindicated.

Many possible high-profile candidates decided on reflection not to enter the lists, so, despite there being six candidates, the choice is quite limited. There is no evidence that President Mary McAleese’s authority was any way diminished by the absence of an election in her second term, the highlight of which was the visit of Queen Elizabeth in 2011.

Excluding monarchies, most heads of state are public figures of long-standing, well-known not only to the public but at least by reputation abroad. Given that one of the functions of the President is to receive ambassadors, other heads of state and government, and to make State visits abroad, political and ministerial experience can be an advantage, but not of course essential.

A lot of coverage in the early part of the campaign was nit-picking at the record and credentials of the various candidates. Inevitably, a good deal of worthy aspirations are expressed, many of which stray into areas that are the responsibility of government.

One area that will be vitally important over the next few years, where the President as well as the Taoiseach has a central role, is the second part of the decade of centenaries. The current President has been outstanding in showing historical understanding, empathy and sensitivity during the 1916 centenary and other events of the decade.

The person elected President on Friday will need even more of those qualities in the challenging commemorative period ahead, which will cover the war of independence, the civil war, and partition, as well as the establishment of the State. The inauguration takes place on or around November 11, Armistice Day, which brought the First World War to an end without preventing a sequel.